Theon never betrayed the Starks: How ‘Game of Thrones’ minimizes forced captivity & slavery
Like Daenerys, they too were benevolent captors, and Theon should have also been immediately and unquestionably grateful
This essay contains spoilers for HBO’s Game of Thrones and mentions rape.
We have finally reached the moment when the war between the Night King’s army of the dead and the Westerosi resistance begins, the cataclysmic event to which 8 seasons of one of the most groundbreaking television series have been leading up. Along the way, viewers of HBO’s Game of Thrones have been given insight into the quite intricate political realities of the story’s mythological world, realities shaped by author George R. R. Martin’s byzantine mind and D.B. Weiss and David Benioff’s proficient interpretation of it for the small screen.
One of the most frustrating aspects of this admittedly entertaining reality has always been the story’s engagement with race (or lack thereof), and its associated messaging around forced captivity and slavery, which can’t be removed from its white creators’ relationship to colonial history. At many points throughout the show, the writers present freedom as something that can be bestowed by benevolent (white) saviors. Many critics have picked apart this aspect of the show already, with significant criticism of Daenerys’ white savior narrative and other critiques used to pushback against another planned Weiss and Benioff show reimagining the world if the South had won the Civil War.
But one storyline that hasn’t gotten as much attention is that of Theon, the prince of the Iron Islands whom the show presented as the villain for much of the earlier seasons after he “turned” on one of the main protagonist families, the Starks. Many of us accepted his new identity as villain so easily that we might have even found his seasons-long torture, castration, and evolution into the animal-like Reek at the hands of Ramsay Bolton deserving.
But after watching the show in its entirety in preparation for the final season, I have to admit the possibility that viewing Theon through this lens was only more of the same manipulation that pressured me to cheer for a white woman who goes around freeing (mostly) Black and brown slaves who then worship her for benevolently “giving” them their freedom. And as Theon’s story arc finally reaches the point of redemption, I am finding myself increasingly uncomfortable with it.
Let me preface this by saying that I know this is just a fantasy show, that Theon is himself a objectively terrible white man regardless of his captivity (which is in no way comparable to chattel slavery), and so I really don’t have too many dogs in this fight. But if we must critique the show (and as one of the biggest shows on television, we must!), I think it’s also important to look at the most insidious ways it reinforces dynamics that affect the lives of marginalized people today, as it works the same way colonial propaganda has worked for hundreds of years.
It’s understandable for some not to recall that Theon was forced into captivity by the Starks. The show does a great job at differentiating between benevolent captors and sadistic ones, so much so that you’d be forgiven for forgetting the former are captors at all. This was especially evident in a storyline in season one that ended with Daenerys accepting an offer to treat a wound her husband Khal Drogo’s took during the sack of a village, an offer made by one of the captive village women, Mirri Maz Duur. Duur convinces Daenerys to trade the life of her unborn child for Duur’s blood magic to save Drogo’s life, and then uses that magic to leave Drogo in a vegetative state.
A self-righteous Daenerys then confronts Duur, telling the recently violently enslaved woman, “I spoke for you, I saved you,” referring to how she stopped her husband’s men from raping Duur and other slaves. “Three of those riders had already raped me before you ‘saved’ me, girl,” Duur replies. “I saw my gods’ house burn, there where I had healed men and women beyond counting. In the streets I saw piles of heads, the head of a baker who makes my bread. The head of a young boy that I’d cured of fever just 3 weeks past. So tell me again exactly what it was that you saved?”
Duur’s point is well-made, and her anger should be justified. Still, Daenerys, burns the woman at a pyre, and as we hear her agonizing screams, the camera zooms in inspirationally to Daenerys’ resolved face. The intent is clearly to suggest that this is real justice. Duur was wrong—and perhaps even evil—to reject Daenerys’ “help,” when her enslavement, bad as it was, could have been worse.
We should be thankful when our captors/enslavers stop us from being raped (even if they already raped us three times), the show continually reinforces, and almost all of the other enslaved people that Daenerys “helps” later in the show are immediately and unquestionably grateful. Only these grateful slaves are allowed to be protagonists.
The fact that Theon was forced into servitude by Ned Stark after Ned defeated Theon’s father in war is mentioned a few times, but far less than the notion that Theon was “like a brother” to the Stark children. Yes, Theon was taken from his family as a child against his will, but the Starks treated him well. Like Daenerys, they too were benevolent captors, and Theon should have also been immediately and unquestionably grateful. That he wasn’t, that he took Winterfell from the Starks when he thought it would bring him back to his real family, made him the worst of traitors.
Again, Theon is no saint. He generally behaves in cowardly ways, and his brutal murder of two innocent children in his quest to take Winterfell was evidence of this. But he also didn’t “betray” the Starks, and that the show has upheld this narrative for so long is a reminder of just how committed it—and white media in general—is in reinforcing the idea of the benevolent enslaver, an idea that has very high propagandistic value in a colonial society.
Duur had every right to rebel against her captors, and burning her in the pyre was not justice. And Theon had every right to rebel too. Freedom isn’t something that one has to work to deserve. It is not something that is given, and so it is never something that one has to be grateful to receive. If someone has the power to grant you your freedom, it means they have already taken part in your enslavement. GOT doesn’t seem to understand this, but we can.